Rise of the Planet of the Apes (United States, 2011)

August 04, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Rise of the Planet of the Apes Poster

Rise of the Planet of the Apes represents Fox's attempt to reinvigorate a dormant franchise. The new movie is technically a prequel to the 1968 Planet of the Apes; however, it ignores the various sequels and spin-offs (including a TV series) that derived from that property. It also denies the existence of Tim Burton's remake. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is designed so that it can stand alone as an "alternate" history of how the world got to where it was when Charlton Heston landed. In the event that it is profitable, it can provide the springboard for a new Planet of the Apes motion picture series. From tactical business standpoint, Fox has positioned Rise of the Planet of the Apes smartly. Unfortunately, the same terminology cannot be used to describe what transpires between the beginning and end credits.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells of the origins of an apocalypse. It's not really the whole story - a rushed ending telegraphs how most of humanity gets wiped out (with details presumably being fleshed out in a possible second installment). The film is allegorical, although it offers little that's new in its depictions of inter-species bigotry and its warnings about playing god. The original Planet of the Apes does a better job with the former and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein offers a more compelling lesson in the latter.

Perhaps appropriately, the "apes" (chimpanzees, orangutans, and a gorilla) are better developed than their human counterparts. It's curious how director Rupert Wyatt gets us to care about the mostly-CGI creatures in this movie while leaving us largely unmoved by the actor-portrayed characters. It's difficult to say whether this is an asset or a detriment given the nature of the story, but it makes the scenes devoted to the myriad problems of scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) seem inconsequential. In fact, most of the material not featuring Caesar the chimp feels like filler.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is assembled from bits and pieces hijacked from the 1968 original and its various follow-ups. For those familiar with the franchise, this is all setup. For those who have never heard of Planet of the Apes, it's a reasonable jumping-off point. The force-fitting of pieces into a larger context, however, lends an incomplete feel to this movie. In 20 years, if we look back at a series of five or six Planet of the Apes films, this one might work better than it does as a stand-alone. The story simply stops. There is no closure for any of the characters and the global situation is advanced through a shorthand explanation provided during the end credits. And, unlike Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One, where we knew there would be a Part Two, there are no guarantees with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Based on the bland performance displayed here, it's hard to believe that James Franco was nominated for an Oscar. He may be one of those actors who excels in dramas but loses his way in popcorn-oriented forums. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, he plays the father of the apocalypse. Trying to fast-track development of a cure for Alzheimer's, which afflicts his ailing father (John Lithgow), Will cuts through red-tape and ends up with a deadly combination: a drug that boosts the intelligence of lab chimps but creates a fatal virus in humans. An accident allows the virus to get into the general population, but that development is left in the background until the end credits. Meanwhile, Will, along with his girlfriend, primatologist Caroline Aranha (Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto, criminally underused), raises baby chimp Caesar (Andy Sirkis and a lot of special effects) to adulthood. Aggressive acts lead to Caesar being confined in an "ape sanctuary" with hundreds of other chimps, orangutans, and gorillas, where he suffers cruelly at the hands of the men who run the place, John Landon (Brian Cox) and his son, Dodge (Tom Felton, bringing along his Harry Potter personality). In this environment, Caesar begins to assemble his army.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a more plot-oriented endeavor than one might expect from a would-be summer tent pole. The action is limited, although what there is of it - including a well-executed battle between apes and humans on the Golden Gate Bridge - is expertly handled and clearly presented. Andrew Lesnie's camerawork is at times beautiful and artistic - the first shot, with the camera diving into an African jungle, is an example. Rise of the Planet of the Apes' composition is so strong that it reminds the viewer how easy it is to pollute the visual aspect of a movie with special effects, explosions, and 3-D.

There are, of course, plenty of computer-generated images in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Most of them, however, are integrated with care and rarely look artificial. Andy Serkis, who has already played King Kong, is now the go-to guy when it comes to motion capture. He "plays" Caesar much like he "played" Kong and Gollum. This approach allows the chimp to interact believably with the human actors; it also results in Caesar being the only character in Rise of the Planet of the Apes with whom viewers develop an emotional bond. The role reversal is strange: the real human beings are semi-formed entities and the computer-generated creation is three-dimensional.

The central problem with Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it feels more like a piece of something larger than a complete motion picture. There are some great sequences: the aforementioned Golden Gate Bridge conflict being one and Caesar's society-building within the compound being another. But there's also a lot of filler and few of the human-centered scenes really work (unless Caesar is involved). Especially embarrassing are the office politic segments in which Will negotiates with his boss (David Oyelowo). Overall, the movie is competent enough to make me curious about the potential future direction of Planet of the Apes films, but not so compelling that I'll wait for them.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (United States, 2011)

Director: Rupert Wyatt
Cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, Andy Serkis
Screenplay: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie
Music: Patrick Doyle
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2011-08-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1